By Suzanne Belling
After fighting leukaemia for over 20 years, actress, TV producer/director, comedienne, children’s poet, drama coach, teacher and grandmother Helen Heldenmuth succumbed to the side-effects of treatment and the disease itself on August 5. She was 78.
There were so many facets to her that one could write her biography instead of a word-limited obituary. She had a lasting influence on the thousands of children – now adult – who passed through her hands at the various schools, from HA Jack to Red Hill and King David, where she taught English and Afrikaans.
She was once told by a stranger in a lift that she had a golden aura and would spend the rest of her life working with children. She did, but that is not all.
To her uncountable friends she gave of herself unstintingly and had the ability to keep them in stitches.
Helen wrote and produced children’s musicals and adult satires to mark Jewish celebrations. She won 15 out of 18 parachute debates over the years and won a best actress award for her role as Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet in 1958, during a short-lived stage career which went on “till I decided I was a nice Jewish girl and did not fit the backstage lifestyle”.
Chairman of the board of judges for the Naledi Theatre Awards (she was a judge on this theatre award platform and its predecessor, the Vita Awards for many years), Helen was the prime motivator, producer and director behind Shalom TV, a Jewish South African television magazine programme; she introduced multi-faith programmes, which she also directed and produced, to the South African Broadcasting Corporation. She was director and producer of both.
Before she was hired by SABC, she had a call from the director of religious programmes, who showed interest in her CV. That was until he asked her age – over 50 at the time. “Sorry, don’t you think you are too old for the position?” he asked. Her immediate rejoinder: “Not if you think Madiba is too old to be president!”
She got the job.
Professionally, Helen was a script and speech writer and a public and private entertainer. The meals she cooked for her loved ones were a gourmet’s delight and her own delight was spending time with her grandchildren.
Helen fought her cancer like a true warrior, even joking about her condition while sunbathing in Cape Town, after having had a cancerous kidney removed. A woman commented that she should not be baking in the sun … “Do you think I could get cancer?” Helen asked.
In her young years, when introductions were being given at a social gathering, she would introduce herself as “Helen of Troye Street”.
But there was a serious side to her. Countless times she had visits from the apartheid security police, checking on the young black girls in her care.
Sizie Modise, who lived with her, called her “Mommy” and her biological mother, “Mama”. Helen knocked herself out to obtain bursaries for the young girl for whom she became a legal guardian.
Ignoring the laws, she had Sizie’s family living in her home, which had an ever-open door. She would entertain rabbis, diplomats and top businessmen.
Born on December 26 1940, Helen attended Waverley Girls’ High School and the University of the Witwatersrand, where she studied education.
One of her more recent achievements was her ongoing productions of the children’s show Shooby Doob Shloimy which she adapted prior to various Jewish festivals as a fundraiser.
She was also a presenter on the South African Jewish radio station Chai FM, excelling in her Yiddish morning show Kumsitz. In spite of all her treatment and suffering, she would go straight from chemotherapy sessions to broadcasts in the studio.
“In so many ways, Helen was bigger than life itself. She was a person you never would, or never could, forget,” said Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva College and rabbi of the Glenhazel Area Hebrew Congregation, who conducted her funeral at West Park Cemetery on August 6. “Highly talented in so many areas, she was an actress who understood the serious side of life, in spite of her sense of humour. She was a true eshet chayil (woman of valour).”
Helen is survived by her daughter and son-in-law Merissa and Gabriel Moritz; her son and daughter-in-law Gary and Tracy Heldenmuth; her brother, Bernard Abramowitz; and her grandchildren, Hanna, Tali and Andrew Heldenmuth and Adam, Ovadya, Michi, Isaac and Natanya Moritz, and literary thousands of former students, friends and industry-wide fans.
- Suzanne Belling is a seasoned writer who has written for and edited several newspapers over the years. She has written five books and was a close friend of Heldenmuth.
- A version of this story appeared in the SA Jewish Report.